The Middle East Channel

Jordan's U.N. Security Council Debate

In October, Saudi Arabia secured its first-ever election to a seat on the U.N. Security Council (UNSC). The same day, even as gift bags were sent to thank countries that had voted for Saudi Arabia, the kingdom then created another "first" as it became the first country to reject its own election to the UNSC. The objection appeared, at least at face value, to be a matter of principle. The Saudi government declined the seat, citing the Security Council's failures in ending conflicts from Syria to Israel and Palestine. Just as importantly, however, Saudi Arabia may have wanted to avoid going on record in two years' worth of repeated votes on controversial issues in international relations and international security. That pressure may now fall to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, as Jordan appeared poised to take the UNSC seat originally offered to Saudi Arabia.  

For this to occur, Saudi Arabia would have to confirm its rejection of the seat, and Jordan would need to win an election in the U.N. General Assembly.* It also represents both an opportunity and a new set of difficulties and constraints for a country that has struggled with internal and external pressures during the years of the regional "Arab Spring." Jordanian officials were actively engaged in diplomacy, consultation, and negotiation, to see if they should, in fact, really want this opportunity or burden, and further, to see if Jordan would truly have the backing of Arab and other states (including Saudi Arabia). In a related move, Jordan dropped its own bid for a seat in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) -- a body of 47 countries, some of which have stellar human rights records, and others which seem to be a Who's Who of rampant human rights violators. In dropping its own bid to join the UNHRC, Jordan paved the way for Saudi Arabia, certainly an unlikely participant in any human rights body, but one that will be joined by equally out of place states such as the People's Republic of China. With Saudi Arabia moving into the Human Rights Council, Jordan could then take the Saudi seat in the UNSC. The Security Council would still manage to have Arab representation, even after the Saudi shift, which will be reassuring to some members of the Arab League.

But does Jordan represent any significant change from Saudi Arabia in terms of likely stances in international relations? At first blush, the two might seem similar on the world stage: both are majority Arab and Sunni Muslim states, both are hereditary monarchies, and both have been closely aligned with Western powers -- with the United States in particular. But while Saudi Arabia is a tremendously wealthy oil giant, Jordan is a resource-poor and deeply indebted country, in the midst of a long-term economic crisis. Both states have complained of Israeli policies, the continuing lack of an independent Palestinian state, and have warned of rising Iranian power (to the point of referring to the perceived dangers of an emergent "Shiite Crescent"), and both have felt the internal as well as regional pressures of the Arab Spring. Yet unlike Saudi Arabia, Jordan has for almost 20 years maintained a peace treaty with Israel. While U.S.-Saudi relations have encountered recurring rifts, U.S.-Jordanian relations have never been closer.

Saudi Arabia has championed revolutionary causes from Libya to Syria, but led a reactionary and decidedly counter-revolutionary camp among the conservative monarchies of the region. Jordan, in contrast, has (as is typical of Jordanian foreign policy) attempted a middle path wherever it appears available, styling itself as a moderate in regional relations. As Saudi Arabia has played an ever-increasing role arming elements of the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime, Jordan has played a more ambiguous and at times seemingly contradictory role regarding the Syrian civil war. Jordan has called consistently for a diplomatic solution, and has declared itself neutral in the conflict. But it has also accepted U.S. Patriot missile batteries and F16 jet fighters to bolster its border with Syria, while giving sanctuary to Syrian opposition figures, and even being accused frequently in international media of arming and training select rebel forces. (The Jordanian government strongly denies the latter accusations).

At least until the Arab uprisings, Saudi policy had seemed rather insular and locally focused, while Jordan has been an active internationalist, including as an enthusiastic supporter of the United Nations. The U.N.'s World Interfaith Harmony Day, for example, is now a global event, but it was a Jordanian suggestion, urged by King Abdullah II. Jordanian soldiers have also served in U.N. peacekeeping operations from Haiti to Sierra Leone to Darfur, Sudan. Setting up field hospitals, in fact, has become something of a national specialty for the Jordanian armed forces in either conflict zones or in global disaster relief efforts. In terms of the UNSC, in addition to its close relations with the United States, Jordan has maintained solid and even strong relations with the permanent members of the council, including Russia, China, France, and especially Britain.

It is with these points in mind that the Jordanian government, diplomatic corps, and monarchy all see Jordan as an especially worthy and responsible country for candidacy to the UNSC. Membership on the council, however, will bring with it both opportunities and constraints. Jordan could, for example, expect a greater voice in international affairs, as well as more favorable terms for foreign aid and perhaps greater trade and investment opportunities, as these do seem to be perks of the two-year UNSC term. But Jordan would also be forced to go on record in particularly controversial areas of international politics, whereas in the past it has tended to prefer a middle path -- a centered, moderate, and at times even ambiguous path. Jordanian foreign policy has always been marked by caution and careful deliberation. To be blunt, Jordan simply cannot afford to alienate either regional or global powers. If it becomes a UNSC member, however, Jordan's influence might increase, but it can also expect to receive strong and at times contradictory pressure even (and perhaps especially) from its allies, including the United States and Saudi Arabia or other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, regarding Israel, Palestine, Syria, Iran, and other areas of international security. Since the kingdom depends on U.S. foreign aid even as it attempts to join the GCC, these contradictory pressures will only become more difficult to navigate over time.

Meanwhile, democracy advocates in the kingdom seem increasingly disillusioned by Jordan's domestic reform trajectory. In my visits to Jordan, democracy activists have argued that reform efforts appear to have frozen in place. International security concerns, especially over the Syrian civil war, do indeed seem to have affected Jordan's reform process, and recent shifts in leadership in the lower house of parliament and the royally-appointed senate seem to have signaled a decidedly conservative and traditionalist turn. Reform advocates feel that they have been sidelined as traditional conservatives make their return, with economic Neoliberals taking perhaps a secondary position, while political and social reformers are blocked out even further. This was in some ways symbolized by the recent replacement of former senate president and moderate reformer Taher Masri with the conservative traditionalist ‘Abd al-Ra'uf al-Rawabdeh. Yet these moves were greeted generally by apathy. Perhaps more dangerous to democratic aspirations, however, is the emergence of a narrative among conservatives within domestic politics that seems to equate reform activism with instability, insecurity, and worse.

The rearranging of elites in key Jordanian institutions seems to signal a state bracing for worst-case scenarios regarding the fallout from Syria. In my conversations with King Abdullah, he was proud of a series of domestic reform achievements, but also especially concerned with the dangers to Jordan of spillover from the Syrian disaster. Jordan's economy and resources have been strained by the presence of more than 500,000 Syrian refugees and indeed Zaatari refugee camp is now Jordan's fourth largest "city."  

A broader question, however, is whether a seat on the U.N. Security Council will also affect Jordan's domestic politics as well as its international position. Will it insulate the state from pressures for further domestic reform, or act as a spotlight on both the successes and limitations of the kingdom's reform program, which, at present, remains an incomplete process? Is the conservative retrenchment within Jordanian domestic politics a temporary offshoot of the security dilemmas associated with the Syrian war, or will it turn out to be a long-term feature of the political landscape?

In either case, Jordan has no shortage of pressures: from domestic politics to economic crisis to regional instability. If Jordan adds a U.N. Security Council seat to the country's resume, it will then be travelling into uncharted international territory, requiring deft diplomacy, as both great opportunities and great dangers abound.

Curtis R. Ryan @Curtisryan1 is a professor of political science at Appalachian State University and author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy. 

* correction: The article originally stated that this had been the first time Jordan had secured a UNSC seat. However, Jordan held a position on the UNSC from 1965-1966 and 1982-1983. 


The Middle East Channel

The United States and Iran trade blame for failed nuclear deal

The United States and Iran traded blame on Monday over responsibility for the failure of the latest round of talks on Iran's nuclear development program. While some reports faulted France for pushing for tight restriction on a heavy-water reactor being constructed in Arak, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran was not able to accept the deal "at that particular moment." Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif rejected Kerry's comments, claiming that delays were predominantly caused by divisions between the six world powers involved in negotiating with Iran -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany. Zarif claimed France "gutted over half" of the U.S. draft proposal on Thursday night. Despite the exchange of accusations, both Kerry and Zarif insisted they were nearing a deal. Zarif said the "outlines and framework" of a deal could be negotiated within a year. However, he asserted that blaming Iran would only serve to undermine confidence, continuing, "The main point is that the West side should build up the trust of the Iranian nation."


The Western-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition named nine ministers for an interim government in rebel-held territory in Syria Tuesday. While the coalition noted the cabinet was unlikely to gain international recognition, some western countries said they would be willing to use it as a channel for humanitarian aid, and France and Britain said forming the cabinet was an important step. However, the United States appears to have reservations. According to an opposition official, "The United States is against the provisional government because it thinks it will undermine the Geneva talks." The coalition noted that even if the sides convene the proposed peace conference, "it will be a long process and we cannot continue to leave the liberated areas prey to chaos in the meantime." The interim government will likely operate from the Turkish city of Gaziantep, along the border north of Aleppo, rather than from within Syria as security concerns persist. Meanwhile, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes between government troops, backed by Hezbollah and Iraqi fighters, and opposition forces in the southern Damascus suburb of Hejeira. Syrian forces have made gains recently overtaking at least four rebel strongholds in Aleppo, as well as areas south of Damascus. Additionally, a cease-fire deal was reportedly struck on Tuesday in the Palestinian neighborhood of Yarmouk, although there were some reports of continued fighting.


Arguments and Analysis

'Revolutionary Pragmatists: Why Iran's Military Won't Spoil Détente with the U.S.' (Akbar Ganji, Foreign Affairs)

"Although the Guards were founded as an ideological organization, they have become vastly more pragmatic as they've acquired more power in the Iranian establishment. The Revolutionary Guards are no longer simply a military institution. They are among the country's most important economic actors, controlling an estimated ten percent of the economy, directly and through various subsidiaries. And those economic interests increasingly trump other concerns. And, although the force can corner a greater share of the domestic market under the sanctions regime imposed by the United States because the private sector has a chronic shortage of funds, many Guardsmen are aware that they stand to gain much more if Iran strengthens its ties to the rest of the world. Companies controlled by the Guards would likely win a lion's share of new foreign investment. But that would require, of course, reaching some sort of accommodation with the United States on the nuclear program.

The Guards have also always shown signs of pragmatism when it comes to military strategy. They are aware that if talks between Tehran and Washington break down, the United States could begin to seriously consider a military intervention. Few leading Guardsmen are eager for that; unlike the clerical establishment that preaches resistance to the West, the Guards are very capable of calculating the material and strategic costs of escalation. On June 3, Brigadier General Hossein Alaei, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War and a highly respected IRGC commander, declared in a public speech that war in the region has only ever resulted in ‘increased killing of the Muslim people, particularly the Shiites.'"

'A Doable Iran Deal' (Roger Cohen, The New York Times)

"The spin masters are out trying to portray the failure of Iran talks in Geneva this way or that. It was the French who abruptly got tough. No, it was Iran's insistence that its right to enrich uranium be acknowledged. No, it was just the formidable difficulty of a negotiation between mistrustful adversaries.

In this mess, with its bitter aftertaste, it is worth returning to basics. First, President Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, and Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, represent the most serious, credible, moderate and capable negotiators the Islamic Republic is ever likely to produce. There will not be a better opportunity with any other conceivable team within a useful time frame.

Second, according to people who have spent many hours with them, Rouhani and Zarif are prepared to limit enrichment to 3.5 percent (well short of weapons grade); curtail the number of centrifuges and facilities and place them under enhanced international monitoring; deal with Iran's 20 percent enriched stockpile by converting it under international supervision into fuel pads for the Tehran research reactor; and find a solution on the heavy-water plant it is building at Arak that could produce plutonium. In return, as these steps are progressively taken, they want sanctions relief and recognition of the right to enrichment."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

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